John 20: 19-31.
There’s something very lovable about Thomas. Faith was never an easy thing for him, and he was a man who had to be sure. In the passage we’ve just heard, he’s acted just as we would expect. This is the same pessimistic disciple who, at the death of Lazarus, suggested that Jesus’s followers might just as well go and die with him when our Lord decided to go to Bethany. This is the same disciple who complained at the Last Supper, that Jesus hadn’t made things anything like clear enough. And this is the man who just happened to be the one who was somewhere else on the first Easter day. He saw the others excited, and unable to contain their joy, and Thomas certainly wasn’t going to be taken in by all of that.
But Thomas is the first person in John’s gospel to look at Jesus and call him “God”. A muddled disciple, determined not to be taken in and refusing to believe anything until he’s got solid evidence, is confronted by a smiling Jesus who’s just walked in, straight through a locked door.
Thomas was baffled of course, just as we are. The whole point of the story is that the meeting is with the same Jesus who still carries the signs of death in his body. His hands have got nail marks in them, and he has a large gaping wound in his side.
The story makes it very clear that this is no ghost; neither is it someone else pretending to be Jesus. This is the body that the grave clothes couldn’t contain any longer. It’s a real body, but it’s also different. Jesus comes and goes as though he belongs both in our world and in a different world; one which intersects with ours at various points but doesn’t use the same geography. The resurrection was the giving back of the life and the death of Jesus at the same time. Jesus rose as the crucified one; that is to say, he died as a human being, and he was given back to us also as a crucified human being. This is important because there is a tendency for us to read the gospel texts and imagine that Jesus may well have been human up until his death, but from the resurrection onwards, he reverted to being God, and eventually, like a helium balloon, couldn’t be held to the earth any longer and floated back to heaven where he belonged.
Well, this is not the case. When Jesus died, it was a fully human being who died completely, and when Jesus was raised from the dead, it was a human being who was given back to us. The risen and crucified Jesus was no less human after his resurrection than before it. Transformed, changed, the first-born of God’s new creation, yes; but a transformation which contained his full humanity. This says something very deep about the presence of God on earth. It says that the divine life is permanently present as human. It means that being religious or knowing Jesus can have nothing to do with escaping from being human and avoiding flesh and blood.
Thomas, saw and believed; and the words of Jesus must be taken as encouragement to those who come later. People like us, who are blessed when, without having seen the risen Lord for ourselves, nevertheless believe in him. The resurrection isn’t an alien power breaking into God’s world. It’s what happens when the creator himself comes to heal and restore his world and bring it to its appointed goal. The deepest meaning of the resurrection concerns this new creation. When Jesus emerged transformed from the tomb on Easter morning he emerged into the first day of God’s new week. He was a sign that the whole of creation would shake off its corruption and decay. He was a promise of a world to come in which death would be abolished; in which the living God would wipe away all tears, because, our personal hope for resurrection must be set within the larger hope for the renewal of all creation. If we take away the bodily resurrection we are left with a private spirituality which leads to a disembodied life after death, and its denial of the goodness of creation.
It’s important for us to grasp this, and any sense that Jesus started a movement which is somehow opposed to, or can leave behind the world which God made in the first place, is excluded by John’s gospel from start to finish.
John isn’t saying that the early disciples were confronted with Jesus and tried to find a category for him. The point he’s making is that they were looking for the Messiah, the son of God, and here at the end of his story he tells us that things have come full circle. God’s Word of the first chapter of his book is proclaimed as this Messiah, and is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
“The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us, and we beheld his glory”
This is what Thomas saw and believed. And we too can experience the same thing.
For, you see, there were two ways in which Jesus was present to the first disciples. There was his actual physical presence; they could touch him and he could eat fish. But along with that, and as a part of it, there was a forgiving presence that called them out of themselves towards another whom they sometimes found difficult to recognise, and who gradually transformed their lives. We know that after a time the appearances stopped, but they still received this transforming experience of a forgiving presence. Jesus had to go because he was a particular human being and it was his going that made possible the coming of the Holy Spirit. And so the two ways of experiencing Jesus which initially came together for the apostles do not come together for us. But the Holy Spirit which Jesus breathed into the disciples on that first evening constantly makes present to us also, the crucified and risen Lord, and this presence always reproduces those changes of relationships which began as a result of his resurrection. It is the bursting into our lives of those important elements of the resurrection, the freely given forgiveness that is made constantly available to us by the Holy Spirit, which enables us also to become witnesses to the resurrection in our own lives too, as we are enabled to recast the ways in which we relate to God and to each other.
As we come to believe in Jesus those marvelous words of St John become true in our own experience: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. “
And we are enabled to say with Thomas: “My Lord and my God”,